And whether posing as a small-time jewel thief, truck load hijacker, and mob associate to the Gambinos in the Bronx, or as a wealthy money-laundering expert for the Cali cartel in the Colombian section of Jackson Heights, Queens, or purchasing two kilos of powdered cocaine from the subjects of my first solo narcotics case — a favor to his new deskmate — and convincing the subjects to bring their product to the Burger King parking lot just two doors down from our FBI office on Queens Boulevard, Joaquin Garcia was as gifted and as infinitely talented an undercover agent since the halcyon days of Joe Pistone’s disassembling of the Bonnanos back during the late 1970’s.
And for reasons unbeknownst to me, he took a liking to me right away, graciously offering to take me under his considerably large wing. We became fast friends, but more importantly, he helped teach me the business of watching his back as part of his backup team, and then he began to teach me the complex trade of the FBI undercover agent.
It began slowly enough with him requesting that I tag along in a backup undercover capacity. These junior roles were purely visual and typically involved no speaking, but they were instructional. I was to play a criminal associate of his, or act as his bodyguard, or serve to fetch the product (drugs) or retrieve the bag of money to be laundered from the bad guy. Important people in the criminal world employed a posse from time to time. I was to be part of his gaggle of armed men.
Jack Garcia taught me the delicate nuances of when to speak, and when to shut up. He taught me how to act and warned me not to overact in undercover roles. “Never oversell the deal, Jimmy,” he’d patiently explain. “Remember, when you act too desperate to seal a deal, the bad guys suspect you’re a cop. Always be prepared to walk away from a deal. Remember this: There’s always ‘next time’ in this business”
Witnessing “Big Jack” work, up close and personal, was a privilege. No one spun a cover story better. No one turned a potentially hazardous situation or confrontation into a big and hearty belly-laugh with the bad guys. And there’s no other undercover agent that I would have been more willing to jump in front of a bullet for than Joaquin Garcia.
Years later, long after we’d both departed C-13 for other assignments, Jack took on his penultimate role, playing a knock-around jewel thief and cigarette smuggler — think: Donnie Brasco — and penetrated the Gambino family, reaching a level — the elusive mob proposal to become a made gangster — that no one since Pistone had achieved.
Don’t believe me?
You can read about his impossible to duplicate career exploits in “The Making of Jack Falcone: An Undercover FBI Agent Takes Down a Mafia Family,” a book he coauthored with Michael Levin in 2008. Most law enforcement officers are privileged to be part of one, maybe two big cases in their careers. “Big Jack” was the catalyst behind innumerable successful case takedowns, all attributable to his fearless, resourceful and ingenious undercover efforts.
And for a fleetingly brief period of time, I was once again privileged enough to work with him, some ten years after we’d first met. We were assigned as undercover partners on another mob case, meeting targeted mobsters and associates in strip clubs and restaurants in suburbs just north of New York City area. I know he adamantly insisted I be his backup on this one. And we both shared a laugh that unbeknownst to one another at the time, we’d both selected “Falcone” as our chosen undercover surnames. What the hell were the chances of THAT?
I’d chosen Jimmy Falcone for all the reasons undercover agents choose their nom de guerres — firstly, my selected first name had to be the same as my real moniker. You want to be able to respond reflexively when your name is called out by the targets of a case. It has to be a fluid, and an in-the-moment reaction. Keeping the same first name ensured this for me. And the last name I chose was a silent tribute to Italian Judge and Prosecuting Magistrate Giovanni Falcone (1939-1992). He was martyred for his courageous work against the Sicilian mafia. He was assassinated in Palermo in 1992. I wanted the mafia targets I dealt with to unwittingly speak his name, when referring to me, as an unplanned tribute to this brave crime-fighter. Yes, there’s purpose to almost any and every small and seemingly meaningless decision in my life. I was Jimmy Falcone for a reason.
Judge Falcone had been a close personal friend of the FBI’s fifth director, Louis J. Freeh. And when al-Qa`ida terrorists targeted and bombed two U.S. embassies Kenya and Tanzania on August 7th, 1998, as a then counterterrorist operator with the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), I traveled, in the days immediately following those attacks, with Director Freeh to the site of destruction at both embassies. My job was to provide VIP security for a director who eschewed the typical organized full-time protection details that every previous (and subsequent) director has relied upon. Freeh felt it a waste of precious limited FBI agent resources, preferring to reallocate those personnel to the field, and have them investigate crime. Therefore, HRT provided his inner-circle security teams when called upon. This was one of those times.
And on one particularly exhausting day of touring the rubble and interfacing with our evidence recovery personnel, Director Freeh invited his HRT bodyguards back to his hotel suite in Nairobi.
We pretended to relax — as much as one could when in the close circle of an FBI director — and then:
“Men,” he started, lifting a plastic glass filled with an adult beverage we all shared that evening, “it was only four years ago that we dedicated the Falcone Memorial Garden at the FBI Academy as a tribute to a courageous man who showed us how to stand up to cowards. He was undeterred by their threats. And he made the ultimate sacrifice for us all. And in this same vein, we must forever remember the brave folks who died at this embassy, serving their country and the ideals of freedom and justice for all. A toast to those who go into harm’s way.”
We all “clinked” our plastic cups to the courage of our fellow public servants, and quickly quaffed the swill that, under the current set of circumstances, had to serve as Johnnie Walker Blue.
And to this very day, a bronzed bust of crusading Judge Falcone sits in solemn repose, in a quiet garden surrounded by leafy trees, at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Most conveniently, being a Falcone — replete with FBI created fake identification — made playing Jack’s cousin all the more plausible. We shared a made-up last name and we carefully crafted our conjoined cover stories. God, it was most excellent while it lasted — the band was getting back together. Guns N’ Roses reunited, Slash and Axl, no less. Life was good…
But my time on the case was to be short-lived, as some mobsters I’d arrested a decade before, inexplicably showed up during one of the case meets. Even though they failed, in the moment, to recognize me, which would have blown the case, possibly imperiling both Jack’s and my lives, FBI Management made the easy decision to pull me off the case. This didn’t deter “Big Jack” from then turning the case into his opus and the subject of his aforementioned tome.
No complaints from me — I had once again been afforded a catbird seat for the “Big Jack Show,” witnessing him cast his wide net, and sure-handed as ever, ensnare loads of greedy criminals in his unique and inimitable fashion — so classically “Big Jack.” He always had the kind of stuff legends are made of — unparalleled talent and an outsized personality. I love him for his successes. I love him for his friendship. I love him for what he taught me. And I love him for giving me the tools to survive the dangerous cat and mouse game of working as an undercover FBI agent.
Throughout the years I worked undercover for the FBI, I had opportunities to meet and gain the trust of drug dealers, mob enforcers, fraudsters, dirty cops, loan sharks, and those running illegal gambling operations.
Working undercover always proved to be a solitary, lonely pursuit. No matter how populous your support team, this one segment of law enforcement requires a cop to be supremely confident in his/her own abilities. When you are engaged, one-on-one, mano-a-mano, with a criminal whose confidence you are seeking to gain, it can be a most nerve-wracking endeavor, as you constantly have to reinforce in your mind — so that it becomes part of who you are in the moment — your cover story and details. It has to be natural, organic, and appear to be unrehearsed.
And, in the moment, you only have yourself to rely upon. No one else. Not the backup team, the case agent, the prosecutors, or your bosses back at the office.
Just you. You are alone. Your wits are your most formidable weapon. Often, your only weapon.
And that’s what makes the undercover endeavor so uniquely singular in its required skill-set.
You can’t be fearless. There’s no such thing.
You have fear, for certain. But an undercover agent has to maintain control of that fear. Solid control. Pissing one’s pants blows one’s cover. You have to keep your urinary tract under control. It is a prerequisite for the assignment.
Undercover courage is not the absence of fear. It is the expert control of that fear; the positive channeling of fear into a sharpening of the senses, a heightened sense of awareness, at ALL times while engaged in a role.
Yes, fear is necessary for the undercover to be effective. But an undercover agent can’t be immobilized by it, paralyzed by it, or consumed by it. They must channel it and turn what many sense as a weakness into a strength.
Yes, controlled fear, the mastery of that unpleasant emotion, is the undercover’s friend.
Who likes to admit that? No one does. But it’s true.
And where does that fear come from? It originates in the form of a sense that something is dangerous or that death or bodily harm could be imminent.
And for an undercover officer or agent, the world of shape-shifting and high-stakes role playing carries twice as much danger as other law enforcement functions.